The Intersection of Screenwriting and the Legend of King Arthur – The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professors Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D. and Angus Fletcher, Ph.D.

In this episode of The Torch, an expert in the Arthurian Legend and a screenwriter discuss the intersection of page and screen as well as the amazing narrative and cathartic possibilities a good story has to offer.

Professor Angus Fletcher, screenwriter, and Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Arthurian Legend expert, explore the art of storytelling as demonstrated in a well-loved and often retold classic: The Legend of King Arthur.  Along the way they discuss other story lines such as mono-myth and the hero’s journey.

Image of medieval knight in armor


Brandon Hopkins: Welcome to the Torch. I’m here with Jessica Darago who is also an academic content supervisor. My name is Brandon Hopkins, and today we are here with Angus Fletcher, professor of English and film at Ohio State he is both an academic and a screenwriter, and we’re talking to an old fan favorite here at the Great Courses, Dorsey Armstrong, who has taught several courses with us. She’s done a course on King Arthur, which is one of the reasons that we’ve all come together today.

There is a new King Arthur movie out directed by Guy Ritchie called King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and we thought we’d talk a little bit about that movie, about adapting big cultural legends to film, and the Arthur legend in general. Let’s go around the table. Jessica, can you tell us what you do here?

Jessica Darago: I do the same thing that Brandon does. We are academic content supervisors, and we help the professors shape the content for their course. We help them decide what goes in, what comes out, what order things should be in.

We help with research and all sorts of aspects of actually developing their scripts. We also shepherd a lot of pieces of the pre-production process. We’re the center of the web for a long part of the production process.

Managing a Complex World Through Narrative

Angus Fletcher: I’m a little bit of an odd duck. I did my undergraduate in neuroscience, and I got very fascinated with the way that narrative or stories work. There’s this kind of old idea you hear that reason is the thing that sets us apart from animals.

This is the thing that philosophers have been telling us for a long time, but then when you actually start working in science, you realize that humans aren’t very rational at all. In fact, we’re totally and utterly emotional. Then you start to think, “Well, there must be something else that separates us from animals.”

The thing that I gravitated to is the idea that narrative or story is what separates us:

Narrative in the broad sense, that we’re able to parse our world into cause and effect, so this happens and then that happens. When you start to do this, this allows you not just to do basic, easy things like plan your day and your career and things like that, but it also allows you to establish your our individual identity as well as your collective identity as a nation or as a world.

Next, I got my PhD in lit from Yale – I wanted to study stories and how they work. I was viewed a little bit as an odd duck there because I approached everything like a scientist, which is not normally how you approach things in literature classes.

Then, I was at Stanford for a bit. There I made friends with a development exec at Pixar because I was very interested in learning how they were creating these groundbreaking stories. I learned a little bit from her and from them about how stories worked. I went down to LA, started teaching at USC. I got an award known as a Nicholl for best original screenplay from the Academy. Since then, I’ve been doing both screenwriting and research into narrative and how they work.

I think that stories are all very different from each other. They work very differently in the brain and different cultures and individuals have different ways of telling stories. Story telling is essentially a kind of adaptable software for allowing us to engage with an ever changing complex world, to constantly shift and adapt who we are in response to this world.  So it’s this wonderful, magical thing that is both incredibly human, but also this way in which we can change and grow, assume new identities, assume new possibilities.

Story telling is essentially a kind of adaptable software for allowing us to engage with an ever changing complex world. Click To Tweet

Dorsey Armstrong: I am a professor of medieval literature, but my specialty has long been the Legend of King Arthur. One reason I love the Legend of King Arthur is that every age invents a new Arthur. If you go all the way back to the fifth century and trace it through up to the 21st, every generation or so, we get a new version of Arthur and the story gets added to, adapted, tweaked to fit the needs of whatever the people really need at that moment in terms of storytelling.

Learn more: The Origins of King Arthur

perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”28″]Every age invents a new Arthur![/perfectpullquote]It’s an incredibly malleable story, and another thing I love about the Arthurian legend is how it’s kind of like a giant magnet, and it just attracts to itself all these other stories that might not originally have had something to do with King Arthur, but they can be easily incorporated. It’s huge and expansive and all encompassing, and it’s got something for everybody.

Brandon Hopkins: What is it about the Arthur legend though? If it can constantly suck in new stories or change or adapt to new eras, how does it stay itself? What is it about a legend like that, that it has some sort of identity to it?

Dorsey Armstrong:  If we go back to the basics and if we think about the historical figure on which this Arthur character may have been based and how he’s represented, say from between 500 to 1500, the constants are always someone who has power thrust upon him or reluctantly has to take over in the face of overwhelming odds, and we all love an underdog story, right?

Then at its core, it’s about doing good and trying to do the right thing in the face of insurmountable odds, and those odds can take the form of evil magicians or bad knights who want to take over your realm or rebel kings or dragons or magic. Make it be whatever you need it to be, but at its core is the story of Arthur, someone who comes to power.

In the version of the legend that has given it its most definitive stamp, which is Sir Thomas Mallory at the end of the 15th century when he takes all of these earlier versions and writes a comprehensive, coherent, consecutively ordered story of Arthur’s, the first time someone has done that who’s a single author.

Learn more: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur

He maintains this idea of Arthur as an unknown who doesn’t know his birthright, comes to the throne, does his best to rule well, and then we have added the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, a love triangle just to get things spiced up. Then you have adventures of all his knights.

It's about doing good and trying to do the right thing in the face of insurmountable odds. Click To Tweet

When you start adding the adventures of individual knights, anything can happen. Any knight can have any different kind of adventure, but they’re all representatives of Arthur, so their stories are also Arthur’s stories.

Creating A Story Engine

Brandon Hopkins: It sounds a lot like what, Angus, you call the story engine for a television show.

Angus Fletcher: Yes, what’s just fascinating to me listening to this is… When we talk about story engines for things like TV shows, what we’re basically talking about is how can we establish a kind of conflict that’s bigger than any one person?

A good story engine creates a conflict that is always bigger than any one person.

That conflict is so deep and so powerful that it draws in everyone around it and drives not just storylines, but characters, drives everything. When I think about Arthur, I think of it less as a story about Arthur, and I think of it more as a story about a crisis.

I think of it as a story very basically about a country that has lost its sense of purpose, a country that’s in a deep state of suffering. Literally it’s a country in the historical sense where these outsiders, the Saxons, have come in and there’s just an enormous sense of repression and suffering and loss, but more powerfully it’s the story of a dead land, and a land that needs someone to come and revive it and resuscitate it.

What I find fascinating about the Arthurian legend is that the character who’s chosen to save the land can’t do it, and so the character comes and is summoned to deal with this incredible existential crisis of the brokenness of the world, and he himself is reluctant, is fallible, is imperfect. His own family comes apart. His own relationship with his wife comes apart. His relationship with his knights comes apart. Everything that he does comes apart.

Then, in the Mallory version for a brief moment when we saw Arthur, we felt that this was a man who was going to save us from ourselves and then restore the world’s order, and then he got crunched up and chewed out and spit out just like the rest of us.

The thing that remains is we still don’t have the grail. We still don’t have this thing that we’ll click in and make everything mean something again.

Dorsey Armstrong: I would add that all of that is absolutely correct, but the thing that we’re left with when the Arthurian project fails is this sense that it was still worth it to try, that even though it failed, that was still a noble effort and that should be honored and remembered, that in the face of all these impossible challenges, this group of people led by Arthur tried to do the right thing. It didn’t work for a variety of reasons, which I could tell you about for the next five hours, but I won’t. The main point is that we should honor the participants and feel nostalgia for what they tried to do.

Angus Fletcher: Yeah, for me, part of the extraordinary thing about it is that somebody tried at all, and part of the feeling that you get, and I suppose we all have this at times in our life, is that life is so overwhelming and so difficult, sometimes it’s just heroic to try and fail.

In a kind of primordial human level, the idea that you can get up in moments of spiritual crisis and a sense of loss and cultural drift is itself a wonderful, miraculous, human quality. I also think back to when this story started, and it’s only recently I would say that people have developed a cult of heroism.

Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, by Peter Paul Rubens
Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, by Peter Paul Rubens

If you go back into the ancient world, heroes are generally not to be admired. You have antiheroes like Achilles who kind of thrust themselves into the narrative by making themselves a pain to everybody around them, and we’re not to really admire Achilles.  Although there is a kind of sublime admiration that we have for the fact that he’s able to be such a brat and basically just kind of distort the entire current of the war because of his own gross individualism.

We don’t really say, “Oh, I want to do that myself.” Then we have other characters obviously like Oedipus or whomever, who are the quote “heroes of tragedy” who stick out and are annihilated by the gods because the gods are like, “No, you don’t get to be big. I am bigger than you. I crush you.”

It’s interesting to me that at this particular moment in history, we as humans can have a human hero, and I’m wondering if you think that’s something specific about this era in history, if you think it’s something maybe about the Christian back text of the story, the idea that there’s a human that can save other humans. I mean, where this idea or this admiration for his failed heroism comes from.

Classical Heroes

Dorsey Armstrong: Well, I would say actually when you started talking about heroes from the classical world, Odysseus for example is a hero that maybe we wouldn’t all find admirable today in all of his actions, but he’s clever and he wins and he gets home and he gets his wife and he kicks the suitors out of his house.

Then you compare him to someone who truly is a hero, Aeneas, fleeing Troy. He has to go through all these adventures and trials to found a brand new civilization, and he does, and he always does the right thing. Whenever I teach the Aeneid, my students are always sort of overwhelmed by what a good guy Aeneas is and how he’s always trying to do the right thing. He really is a hero. There are moments of heroism from, I think, the ancient world.

Portrait of The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Angus Fletcher: It sounds to me like you probably appropriately have a more positive understanding of Aeneas than I do, because I can’t forgive him for what he did to Dido.

Brandon Hopkins: That’s what I was just thinking, yeah.

Angus Fletcher:  I also feel that Aeneas is a kind of classic example of a heroic puppet. He’s a guy whose humanity gets sacrificed, and there’s definitely something admirable in a way about why he does that.

21st Century Freedoms Meshing with 12th Century Legends?

Brandon Hopkins: Well, I think we tend to map that onto a lot of stories including King Arthur because there’s the Clive Owen version of King Arthur where this, our sort of modern notions of freedom and heroism are sort of pasted onto the story in this very sort of bizarre and unrealistic way.

Dorsey Armstrong: And ahistorical.

Brandon Hopkins: Right, totally ahistorical.

Dorsey Armstrong: Completely! No one in the fifth century was walking around saying, “Hey, we’re all born free from our first breath.” No, no, no, no, no.

Brandon Hopkins:  Braveheart does that too where it’s sort of an unrealistic and ahistorical

Jesssica Darago:  Yeah, I’m not sure Braveheart knows it’s unrealistic and ahistorical though. I think, just like Monty Python knows that although it may arguably be the most historically accurate of any King Arthur film, it knows that it’s ahistorical and that it’s imposing modern ideas and a modern idea of Arthur.

Image of a knight dressed in chain armor standing in a field leaning on his sword.I think this Guy Ritchie film does the same thing where he’s not that concerned with what Roman Arthur or Medieval Arthur or Renaissance Arthur was. This is decidedly a 21st century Arthur whose concerns are 21st century concerns, and it’s very much a 21st century film on a meta level too. It’s that same idea. What we’re bringing to it is really important.

Dorsey Armstrong: I think you’re absolutely right, Jessica, but I would add that at the same time that it’s definitely a 21st century film, it also is in some ways an accurate Arthurian film in that it flips its emphasis in that instead of being a story mostly about the character of Arthur, which it is on one level, what it’s about is why we like the Arthur story.

Jessica Darago:  Yes. You could argue that the things that we like about the Arthur story, if we go, say to Joseph Campbell’s theory of the mono-myth and say, “Humans like stories that have these elements. They have, number one, a hero, a young hero, the one who doesn’t maybe know his heritage, is born under mysterious circumstances.

Next, he gets the call to adventure. He usually says no, I don’t want that. Think of Luke Skywalker, right? Ah, I have to stay here on Tatooine. I can’t go with you to fight the Empire.”

Then finally with some supernatural aid and encouragement, the hero crosses the threshold, takes up the mantle of what he’s supposed to do, and then according to the mono-myth, penetrates down into the unknown where he or she gets some kind of knowledge or a talisman or a magic sword, and then comes back to the world, transformed.

That’s exactly what the Guy Ritchie film does. Arthur literally goes to the Unknown Lands, where he has to become himself.

Dorsey Armstrong: Exactly. Well, I think, I guess I’ll have a couple things to say about the mono-myth, but I think you’re right. I think the motifs that Ritchie is using are ancient, but he’s doing it in the context of very modern concerns. And even just silly things, like there’s a bunch of ninjas in the movie. Okay. Sure, why not? A bunch of us have started calling it Excalibro.

Jessica Darago: That’s perfect.

Dorsey Armstrong:  It is. It’s about a bunch of guys with hearts of gold who are kind of ruffians and getting up to all kinds of mischief.

Jessica Darago: Yep, that’s exactly it.

The Hero’s Journey

Angus Fletcher: In this lecture series I sort of take the idea of the hero’s journey to task a little bit. There’s a couple reasons why.

The first is even if you like the hero’s journey, it’s become so incredibly pervasive in Hollywood screenwriting that it’s essentially killed off millions and millions of other forms of equally powerful storytelling.

In this lecture series I sort of take the idea of the hero’s journey to task a little bit.

Then the second more profound critique of the hero’s journey is that basically it’s rooted in Jungian psychology and things which we know are totally not true. The fact is there aren’t archetypes in the human mind. All of these things are made up by a guy who didn’t have a PhD and didn’t really know very much about the human mind.

Then there’s the fact that when you talk to anthropologists or folklorists, you learn there’s tremendous diversity in stories between cultures. Different cultures think about the world differently. They experience the world differently.

There’s a way in which the mono-myth is like this giant concrete that humans pour over a jungle. There’s this beautiful, natural vitality that’s bursting with imagination and species and diversity, and then we arrive and we’re like, “Oh, we can do it better. Strip mall, boom.”

For me when I think about that model of movie making, essentially what’s happening is Hollywood has this structure that it really likes, because there’s just this enormous financial pressure not to get a movie wrong.

person proofreading text

Hollywood’s Imposed Structure

Angus Fletcher: Basically, one way to think about Hollywood is as a bunch of incredibly creative, dynamic people who have this enormous financial burden thrust upon them, to generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.

I think what happens in a lot of those situations is people feel like they have to go back to standbys, and the hero’s journey is a standby. It works if you want to hang things on it. It’s not a bad story structure. It can be effective, but a lot of times it neglects other opportunities that might be more powerful.

If you look at the most powerful movies that Hollywood makes, they always break the rules or they break the rules of previous movies. They also break the rules of the hero’s journey.

One of the things we do in our lecture on Star Wars is talk about how Star Wars is not itself a very good hero’s journey movie even though George Lucas thought that it was. He borrows a lot of other stuff that doesn’t fit very neatly into that structure, and a lot of that other stuff is the stuff that works.

Learn more: Big Wonder: Star Wars

Goals for Adaptations

Jessica Darago: I would say that’s probably also true here, but let me twist this question around a little bit. Brandon asked at the start what makes a King Arthur movie a King Arthur movie, so let me ask you from screenwriter’s perspective. When you have a certain set of audience expectations about King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes, or the Wizard of Oz, or whatever someone’s trying to adapt, what obligation do we have to meet those expectations versus defy those expectations? When you’re doing an adaption, how do you balance that?

Angus Fletcher: This is something I’ve actually had to think about a lot because I do a lot of adaptation projects. In my own mind, every time I do an adaptation, I think back to my own training, which was in Shakespeare.

When writing an adaptation your job is to engage people who love that work and show them something they didn’t see before.

What I think is your responsibility with an adaptation is not to produce this work the way it was meant to be done originally because that work is always and already there. Anyone can go and do Hamlet. Your job is to come in and engage people who love that work and show them something about it that they didn’t see before. You want to be authentic to the material, and you don’t want to stray from the material, but you want to find something in it that someone hasn’t seen before

I think this is what a great lecture does too. In a great lecture, of course, you come in and you already know everything about the material, but then all of the sudden someone says, “Hey, did you know this thing about the King Arthur legend or did you know that thing?” Then all of the sudden, you’re like, “No, I didn’t.” It has the effect of deepening everything you already knew and adding to it.

When I think about doing an adaptation, the first thing I think about is speaking very broadly and for any of you who are out there who are budding screenwriters, you can think about a story both in terms of its content and its form. A lot of times, we put too much emphasis on the content over the form.

The content are all the kind of interesting details that we remember, and the form is the thing that if you’re a good writer, no one ever sees. The form is what causes you to experience the content in a particular way, and the form is what at the most basic level makes you feel emotions and have other kinds of psychological responses to the content.

Learn more: Building Your Story World

If I were to think about King Arthur specifically, what I feel like when I experience the King Arthur legend is I feel like it’s a kind of hopeful tragedy. I think about it as a collision that is thrust upon us with a world that is bigger and more powerful than us.

We rise to the challenge, which is an impossible challenge, but in failing, we reveal something about ourselves that we hadn’t seen before. There’s this kind of moment in that of failed heroism, which is exciting and inspiring, but at the same time reminds us of our smallness in this big place.

Monty Python’s King Arthur

When I think about adaptations of King Arthur that I like, I think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as being my favorite because to me, what that movie does so beautifully is say, “We live in a world where meaning is broken, where nothing really means anything anymore.” It sets it up, I think, perfectly. The way you always set up an adaptation effectively is in your opening beats.

The legend of the Holy Grail, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Legend of the Holy Grail, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Basically, what King Arthur and the Holy Grail does is it says, “Look, we can’t even agree over what kind of sparrow we’re talking about. We need to have this giant, galactic argument,” you know what I mean? It does it really brilliantly because the English and the French just can’t talk to each other.

It’s both ludicrous and also deeply tragic that if you had grown up in the 1970s, this was an era where it just seemed like meaning was busted apart and no one really knew what anyone was saying anymore or what it meant or what was happening.

Their search for the Grail in that story is very much like the Grail search in the original story because it’s about this attempt to get something back, which we feel like we’ve lost. We feel we came from a happier time where things made sense and we now have to ride out and restore that earlier happiness, and then of course what happens at the end is they all get arrested and thrown in police cars. That’s it.

For me, when I think about an adaptation, I think okay, how do I recover whatever that original feeling or experience was in the original work, which I think Monty Python does beautifully in that sense of tragic heroism, and then I think, well, what could I add to the work to bring something out that people hadn’t seen before?

I think to me what Monty Python does is it reminds you that people in the Middle Ages were people dealing in a fleshly, worldly way whose hearts are grieving, whose minds are struggling, who have a sense of humor, incredible, brilliant humor.

There’s a lot of really funny medieval writing, which nobody can appreciate anymore. I think what Monty Python and the Holy Grail does is both give us back that original story, but then also unlock this layer to it that we’ve lost.

Sir Thomas Mallory’s King Arthur

Jessica Darago: Professor Armstrong could you talk about Mallory’s context.

Dorsey Armstrong:  Well, Mallory, of course is writing during the Wars of the Roses, which is essentially a family feud writ large. There were many factions in England that supported at one time or another two branches of the royal family, the Yorks or the Lancasters, and one scholar said “not only did the nobles turn their coats as often as was necessary, but if they were smart enough, they had more than one coat to turn.” It was a period of real instability. The throne moved back and forth multiple times.

Painting of Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Garden by Henry Arthur Payne
Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Garden by Henry Arthur Payne

Sir Thomas Mallory himself seems to initially have been a Yorkist supporter, then switched sides to Lancaster, and he’s implicated in a Lancastrian plot and then ends up in prison. While he’s in prison, and he’s in prison not just because he’s a political prisoner, but also he did some really un-knightlike things.

While he’s there, he says, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to write a hymn to chivalry. I’m going to take all these texts.” He collected texts that were from the French tradition, from the Vulgate, and then from outside the Vulgate tradition that were English, and then he stitched them together to tell the story of Arthur from the beginning until after the end. He just keeps going on and on. He finishes with the death of Lancelot and Guinevere long after Arthur has died. He also adds important elements, including this oath that he has his knights take about what proper, knightly behavior is.

I think that what Mallory is doing when he creates this text is he is essentially setting in motion guidelines for noble behavior, and he’s saying, okay, our society is a mess. If people are following the guidelines and living in the way they did during the rule of King Arthur, we wouldn’t be in this situation where I would’ve been a Yorkist and then a Lancastrian and then in prison, and we would all be behaving more nobly.

So I’m going to create this oath and I’m going to set it in motion and I’m going to try and test it throughout the pages of this Arthurian story to see if it works.

Then the answer he comes up with, unfortunately, is no, it does not work. Ultimately, but things are better when you try to follow the rules of the oath, but they don’t always work in every context. In the end although the kingdom has collapsed, there are still important lessons to be learned and there’s still a sort of nostalgia for Arthur’s day according to Mallory.

Clive Owen’s King Arthur

Jessica Darago: Of the King Arthur films that are out there, which films do you think really work in this way? That they’re either expressing the current cultural concerns or they’re going back to that idea of it was worth the effort, whatever happened, it was worth the effort. Which ones really do a good job?

Equestrian statue of Nuno Alvares Pereira.Batalha.Portugal.Dorsey Armstrong: You know, in the years since it was released, the Clive Owen King Arthur has actually grown on me, although when I first saw it, I could not turn off the critique-o-meter in my head because no one in the sixth century was arguing that they needed freedom. No one wanted to be free.

You wanted to be attached to a lord so you had protection and that kind of thing, and you wanted to be part of a community. You didn’t want to be a free man roaming around the fifth century world, but what that movie did is, it got Arthur, I think, right by getting it wrong, because that Arthur figure comes to the screen, he’s fully formed as this good, noble, guy.

If you watch the guys, you can see his knights are utterly loyal to him, but they also roll their eyes in exasperation because he’s always like, “I hear some injustice over here. I have to go,” and his knights are like, “Come on, we have to go,” and he’s like, “But I think I hear injustice!” Then they follow him and yes, there’s injustice, and he sets it right. The problem that he’s confronting is where do his loyalties lie?

Learn more: Camelot Comes to Hollywood

He’s trying to honor his loyalty to Rome, which he thinks he’s a Roman citizen, and his loyalty to the men who serve him, and he’s utterly loyal to them as well, and the movie is about this conflict between which loyalty do you adhere to when you find out that one of them is asking you to betray the other?

In the end, it’s the society that collapses. He’s no longer a Roman citizen, so that society has crumbled, but something new has to take its place. I think that movie gets it right by getting it wrong.

Angus Fletcher: That’s really interesting. You’re saying that essentially in a way that his being torn between these two loyalties is not dissimilar to Mallory being torn in the War of the Roses or what other people felt in this period?

Dorsey Armstrong:  Absolutely. Arthur is put in an impossible situation, and so what choice do you make when you are confronted with impossible choices? How do you decide which choice is the best? That’s what the Arthur in that film ends up having to do, and that’s why I think it’s interesting and in that respect, it’s true to the legend. It’s not true to the legend in any other respect. I don’t understand why Saxons are north of the wall or why there’s a Roman family up there with a summer estate. That kind of thing I found very distressing.

Sword in the Stone

Angus Fletcher:  Let me throw this out and see if you buy this or not…I’m just fascinated by the depth of the legend and the way there are ways to emphasize different aspects of it. One of the tellings that I always find very charming is the Disney Sword in the Stone, which will definitely mark me as someone who has young kids and has abandoned his critical sensibilities for Disney and the charms that it offers.

hand of a Knight and the famous Excalibur sword in the stoneYet, one of the things that I love about that telling is going back to the way you kind of describe the Arthurian legend as about this failed but nevertheless deeply noble attempt to revive chivalry. That, in a way, is the story of the Disney version because it begins with a king who’s a good king who then can’t find a successor, and the world plunges into darkness. There’s this sense that oh, chivalry couldn’t have saved the world.

Then we kind of get restarted again with young Prince Arthur, and then he saves the world again for a time, but you know that it’s only going to be for a time. It’s that wonderful elegant tragic balance between the admiration and the need we have for heroism, and the sense that every good king is then followed by this hero of darkness.

Dorsey Armstrong: Right. Also, everyone, well especially Hollywood, right? You love the underdog. The young kid who doesn’t want to be king at all, and there’s a particularly moving scene in T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which the movie was based on, in which Arthur, when he’s pulled the sword from the stone and realizes that he’s going to have to be king he’s crying, because this is the last thing he wants. He just wants to be Wart and not this Arthur guy, but he has to be.

So many films, TV, they love the hero who has heroism thrust upon him and is an unwilling hero, but finally accepts this role. The latest King Arthur, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, does that. That’s sort of the major first part of the movie. What? I’m not a king. I’m not this guy. You’ve got the wrong person. No, I’m not doing this.

Whereas the Clive Owen King Arthur, he is always already in charge. It doesn’t start from that position at all. He is told, there’s a scene where he was a young boy and he is told by his father, “You’re going to be in charge of these other boys, and you will be their leader. You’re 10 and I’m telling you now that for the rest of your life, you’re in charge of these men, these boys who grow up to be men.” He takes it very seriously.

In fact, the Clive Owen King Arthur was interesting in that there was never any moment of doubt or hesitation about who’s the leader whereas the Guy Ritchie King Arthur goes back to the unproven young hero who doesn’t even know he’s a hero, doesn’t think he’s a hero, the diamond in the rough kind of story.

The Legend of King Arthur: better as Film or TV show

Jessica Darago:  Knowing, Angus, what you already knew of King Arthur, what Dorsey is talking about, does this sound like a film or a television show to you, the Legend of King Arthur?

Angus Fletcher: Well, ultimately, I think King Arthur works better as a TV show, and the reason for that is that ultimately, film is more about a conflict between an individual and their world and how that character either tries to change the world and does or is ultimately changed by that world.

TV is much more about something that’s bigger than any individual, which is about a deeper crisis in that world in which many different characters come together and grapple with it in their own way. Obviously, I think the Arthurian legend because of the knights and because there are many different knights who are all different is a kind of ideal TV show. It’s also a serial.

When you think about the difference between maybe an epic and a medieval romance, the idea of a medieval romance is it can just go on forever like your favorite TV show. It doesn’t need to have a particular dynastic stopping point as Caesar Augustus says, “Yes, now Rome is founded and the story can stop.”

It can kind of ramble on in its own journey. To me, both the fact that it’s about a crisis in the world, that it’s about multiple characters who are all equally interesting in different ways, and the fact that it doesn’t need to have a necessary stopping point, all these seem to me for me to be an incredibly fertile place for a TV show.

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Dorsey Armstrong: I would agree except for I would want that TV show to be two hours per episode. One reason I was and still am excited about the Guy Ritchie film is that it’s apparently one of six or seven. You take a film like Excalibur, which attempted to tell the whole Arthurian story in one film, which meant that you had characters that were so flat. No one uttered a line of a dialog that a real person would have said any time, any place, anywhere in that movie because it was just moving as quickly as it could through the big symbolic moments and the major plot points.

Six or seven films to explore the whole of the Arthurian legend sounds like a great idea. I hope the studio gives Guy Ritchie the go ahead to keep going because it seems to me that this film deliberately left so much out, and it was refreshing to not have to worry about the love affair. No Lancelot and Guinevere. That can come later. Great.

Merlin is mentioned, but we don’t see him. I’m imagining that there’s another film that’s all about Merlin, which in itself is an interesting story line that deserves a whole film, so I can see how a serial or a TV show would work, but I found more satisfaction in being able to watch two hours of this single story fully explored rather than TV.

Angus Fletcher:  Well, it depends on if you’re a normal person or if you binge watch. If you binge watch, you can actually get 24 hours or even more.

Brandon Hopkins:  Thank you both for coming today and talking with us about a fascinating topic.

Angus Fletcher:  Thank you.

Dorsey Armstrong: Oh, it was my pleasure.